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Dr Deirdre Hughes OBE, Director, DMH Associates & Associate Fellow, University of Warwick IER

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In some parts of the UK, school holidays and/or temporary school closures are taking place. In local areas, tensions are bubbling to the surface where different geographical rules apply in an attempt by the four devolved nations and local authorities to stop the spread of Covid-19. There are growing concerns about jobs, livelihoods and individuals being able to pay their bills and ‘put bread on the table’. We are moving into a long and potentially difficult winter. Alongside health and well-being, fairness and opportunities are two major issues that must be addressed for our society to thrive and prosper.

Strong leadership matters now more than ever. Education and careers support systems are having to reinvent themselves putting people first beyond the use of algorithms, managing late exam results, crass posters and over simplified careers interest inventories. The latter will always come in for criticism as happened last week in England. Back in 2016, the usefulness of the Scottish government’s careers support website came under the spotlight after a teenager in Fife – in the top set for maths – was advised to consider pursuing a career as a chimney sweep, acupuncturist, bodyguard or hairdresser. Since then, the Skills Development Scotland My World of Work has systematically gone through continuous development. What it offers is more sophisticated compared to its national counterparts in England and goes beyond a self-reported interest inventory. It also makes all-age careers guidance and coaching support available. There’s now a chance to turn a negative into a positive - a job to be done nationally to ensure DfE works more closely with education and careers professional bodies together to co-create robust assessment tools and make explicit the limitations of such an approach. This cannot be done in isolation of people having access to meaningful career conversations with skilful practitioners.

This latest criticism in England disguises the real crisis emerging in our local labour markets as people’s jobs in hospitality, travel and tourism, the arts, leisure and recreation services disintegrate. It is also worth noting car and aircraft production is still much lower than at the start of 2020 and the full impact of this has yet to be realised. The labour market data, for June to August 2020, shows the employment rate has been decreasing since the start of lockdown, while the unemployment rate and the level of redundancies have been increasing in recent periods. Whilst vacancies show signs of a recovery, with a record quarterly increase in the recent period, only a few months ago, the number of employees in the UK on payrolls was down around 673,000 compared with March 2020.

According to the ONS, the number of people claiming Universal Credit or Job Seekers Allowance either because they are unemployed or on low-paid jobs is up by 1.4 million the figure in March, meaning the overall claimant count rate for the UK is now at 6.5 per cent. The Centre for Cities (October 2020) reports ‘This month Birmingham has taken over Blackpool as the city with the highest claimant count in the country, and Hull is also in the top 3.  In contrast, York, Exeter and Cambridge continue to have the lowest claimant count figures among the 63 largest cities and towns.’

The scarring effects on well-being that arise from the direct and indirect consequences of higher unemployment and lower incomes should not be under-estimated. There will also be consequences from the loss of social interaction yet to be fully determined.

The pandemic has forced us all to think about opportunities and modern work. Career can be broadly defined ‘as a sequence of life and experiences over time – everyone has a career of some sort – this is something unique to all individuals. But deep and widening inequalities are emerging. There are now 3.5 million people who are out of work but would like a job (ONS 2020). The Social Mobility Commission recently highlighted where you grow up matters. Social mobility in England and careers support remains a postcode lottery. There are large differences across areas in both the adult pay of disadvantaged and the size of the pay gap for those from deprived families, relative to those from affluent families.

Inequality in our society has come into sharp focus over the past few months as COVID-19 has taken a greater toll on people already living with poorer health and prospects. On 25 May, George Perry Floyd Jr was killed by police in Minneapolis and the injustices and inequalities faced by black people in the US, UK and across the world provoked anger and outrage. This serious unease and inequality needs new solutions in a new era. The impact of the pandemic and evidence from the current recession (as with previous ones) indicates a widening of disparities and the losses are likely to be greater for:

  • Young people seeking to enter the labour market;
  • Those with low skill levels and/or in low paid employment;
  • Those in “fragile” employment: temporary work, zero hours contracts, the gig economy;
  • Women;
  • The sick and disabled; and
  • Those at risk of discrimination.

Over the next three days, international experts and over 420 leaders, managers and practitioners from around the world will come together virtually to discuss and find some solutions to these big issues. This includes 4 Ministers from each of the home nations in the UK. As governments reinvent their education and careers systems and reboot their economic recovery, people’s livelihoods and well-being will be centre stage. International best practice models in careers support services can be useful in this regard e.g. lifelong guidance systems in other countries. Unfortunately, lifelong guidance systems so far appear to receive scant attention in England. We know the £173.7 billion borrowed in the first five months of this financial year (April to August 2020) is more than three times the £56.6 billion borrowed in the whole of the financial year 2019 to 2020. Therefore, it seems timely and appropriate to think about returns on investment for individuals, local communities and economies through the design and development of truly modern education and careers support systems.

Finally, in the words of Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders who will be contributing to the conference:

“After we wave goodbye to the facemasks and self-isolation and all other paraphernalia, we will be reminded that what schools and colleges do is they allow the older generation to help pass on the knowledge and skills to the younger generation and the skills they are going to need now and in the future…While we are celebrating the humanity in our schools and colleges, can’t we all celebrate the humanity of our young people in a more rounded-way.”

And in the words of Maya Angelou:

            “The horizon leans forward, offering you space to place new steps of change.”

Dr Deirdre Hughes OBE, Director, DMH Associates & Associate Fellow, University of Warwick IER

The 3-day conference from 20th – 22nd October 2020 will consider both the needs of young people and adults and how best to design effective and efficient education and careers support systems in uncertain times. For the 1st time, specialist technology allows delegates the chance to interact with speakers and other delegates, network, make contacts, share and learn. A digital resource toolkit, sponsored by Barclays Lifeskills, will be made available after the conference to all delegates.

To book online visit: https://dmhassociates.org/conference

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